I first tasted whisky at the age of 15 when my dad poured me a glass of Famous Grouse one Hogmanay. I hated it. A few years later, I ordered myself a Macallan because someone I was with had recommended it. And I didn’t hate it! Was this the difference between a blend and a single malt? Or the difference between a boy and a man? Probably the latter. But now, given the choice, I’d still order a Macallan over a Grouse any day.
I’ve been enjoying whisky for a long time now. I’m not in a club or anything, I don’t keep notes, or score the ones I’ve tried... but I sure do enjoy a whisky.
Despite the Scottish stereotype, whisky was never the drink of choice among me and my pals, and Andy — my good-friend-cum-business-partner — was the only one who seemed to share my thirst for a good dram, which likely explains why we’re such good buddies!
Over the years, Andy and I have had many discussions about whisky, and we’ve developed some similar views on – and a pretty good understanding of — the different facets of the drink and the industry surrounding it. Our interest in whisky has taken us to festivals, tastings, and even a Scotch whisky academy, and has introduced us to hundreds of people, all of whom enjoy a unique relationship with our favourite spirit.
However, when whisky becomes the topic of discussion, we’ve found there are a few phrases that crop up more regularly than others. So I’d like to take this opportunity to give my thoughts on some of these and — who knows? — maybe debunk a couple of whisky myths along the way.
Every whisky is different, but I think most people’s first experience of it is similar to my own: rarely a positive one. Without the urge to give it a second chance and discover an entirely different side of the drink, the assumption is that if you’ve tasted one, you’ve tasted them all, and therefore you “don’t like whisky”. When, in reality, you just didn’t enjoy that whisky. It’s entirely possible that you won’t like any, but you can’t know for sure without first trying a much wider variety, and I can say with confidence that, before too long, you’ll probably find something you do like.
One of the most common taboos in the whisky world seems to be the adding of water. Really, you can add whatever you want to it — cola, ginger ale, ice, milk — after all, it’s your drink. Personally, I don’t add anything to my whisky except water (and maybe some more whisky). Water opens it up, reduces the dominance of alcohol, and allows you to really appreciate all the yummy goodness it holds inside. If anything, I’d say it’s sacrilege not to at least try it with water.
What’s the difference between a single malt and a blended malt? In simple terms, the first is a malt whisky from a cask (or casks) containing the output of one distillery; the second is a malt whisky from casks containing the output of two or more different distilleries. And when you con- sider that single malts make up less than 10 per cent of all Scotch whisky produced, you can’t help but feel that people who limit themselves to only these are never going to fully experience all that whisky has to offer.
The older the rarer? Yes. With the growing popularity and demand in whisky, there are fewer casks ageing for longer and, as such, older whisky is becoming more sought-after. The older the more expensive? Yes. With Scotch evaporating at a rate of two to four per cent every year, you bet it’s expensive — that’s whisky that could’ve been sold otherwise. But the older the better? Not necessarily. Sure, it’s exciting, and a great privilege to experience a significantly-aged whisky, but this doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it. At the end of the day, you enjoy what you enjoy and that differs from one person to the next. It’s cool to drink something that started its life before you did, though.
This one I sort of agree with, but only because I’ve been known to enjoy a wee glass of Scotch whilst cleaning a number of bathroom fixtures. One of the reasons I love blended whiskies so much is that they’re often so well balanced that I can enjoy them without being distracted from what I’m meant to be doing. Watching a film, chatting with friends, or writing an article for a magazine, for example. A good blend complements and satisfies, but rarely demands attention. That’s not to say they can’t be just as fascinating and complex as some single malts — because they certainly can.
There’s a strange common assumption that, in order to fully enjoy whisky, you need some level of education on the subject, and there’s definitely a sense of intimidation and apprehension surrounding it, which can put people off. This doesn’t seem to be the case for any other drink, and it’s one of the most frustrating myths to try and bust. In order to enjoy whisky, you don’t need to know anything about it! I would argue that in some respects the less you know — or the less you think you know — the more honest and real your tasting experience will be. With knowledge comes expectation; your palate shapes itself and you target specific flavours to hunt out. For this reason, Andy and I much prefer blind tasting, and often ask for a ‘surprise’ when sending the other to the bar for a few halves. And, of course, it’s not always good!
Drew co-founded Whisky Blender alongside Andy Davidson
This story first appeared in the print edition of our third issue, which is still available to buy from our online shop.Buy Lagom #3